The crisis of pastoral leadership

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 26, 2017

Some weeks ago, a friend told me about his reactions to an ETWN movie about the life of St. John Paul II. In particular, my friend responded to a scene in which the young Father Karol Wojtyla confers with his bishop. The conversation was remarkably pious, he said; the young priest and his bishop carried on an earnest discussion about the care of souls, with a sense of spiritual urgency.

Was the scene an idealized version of the real conversation? Maybe so. But as my friend observed, the conversation sounded very much like what we all grew accustomed to hearing from Pope John Paul II. It wouldn’t be surprising, would it, if his manner of speech reflected his years of formation under great men of the Church like Cardinal Adam Sapieha, who ordained him to the priesthood.

My friend, who is a priest in one of America’s healthier dioceses, went on to make this mordant observation about the scene that had provoked him:

It occurs to me that nothing (or almost nothing) of this kind of piety actually occurs today between bishop and priest. Everything is administrative, psychological, or sociological—or simply problem avoidance. Very little is religious or truly pastoral, stressing the urgency of the salvation of souls. Of course there is the pietistic framing of issues, but little substance.

Now again we face the question: Is this an accurate portrayal of the situation? Is my friend too cynical? Maybe so, but unfortunately his report matches what we have grown accustomed to hearing from chancery offices.

Pastors regularly tell me about the pressure they feel to balance budgets, to comply with mandates, and to promote the latest diocesan programs and fundraising schemes. Only rarely—and then only in vague terms—are they urged to reach out to the young Catholics who are drifting away from the Church.

For that matter, only rarely (and again, vaguely) are priests urged to attend more carefully to their own spiritual lives. Surveys show that a solid majority of American priests are “happy” as priests. Yet surveys also show that less than half are regular in their practice of the Divine Office. Those surveys suggest that nearly half of our priests could be in a state of serious sin for ignoring their breviaries, but still happy about their status. That is a sign of a spiritual crisis: an indication of an urgent need for pastoral leadership.

The same need is equally evident among the laity. Mass attendance keeps falling. Church weddings and baptisms are also declining. Confession is almost a rarity. The indications of a crisis are evident everywhere. Where is the response?

There are programs, to be sure, introduced each year with great ballyhoo, designed to bring people back to the Church. But this year’s program looks very much like last year’s edition—involving a great deal of energy and paperwork, organizational meetings and small-group sessions. The shiny new programs produce the same old paltry results. And why is that? Perhaps because the creators of those programs have not directly addressed the root problem, acknowledging the manifest pastoral failures of the past fifty years. Perhaps because the programs are an organizational answer to a spiritual crisis.

“I really can’t imagine approaching a bishop today and pleading, ‘We really need to do something about getting the parents of school kids back to Sunday Mass,’” my friend reports. “It’s known to be a problem, of course, but the urgency is not there.” He knows that if his parish lags behind its quota in the next diocesan fundraising campaign, he will be fielding worried calls from the chancery. But if teenagers disappear immediately after their Confirmation ceremonies, never to be seen in church again? No one will call him to account.

Over the years I have heard many bishops speak about the need for greater reverence in the liturgy. Good, good. But what steps are taken to curb liturgical abuses, or to encourage practices to promote reverence? Recently I was told about a diocesan bishop who announced that he would implement a certain pious liturgical practice “if I had my way.” Well, why doesn’t he have his way? A diocese is not a democracy. If a bishop believes that an approved liturgical norm would be beneficial to the faithful, he has the authority to enforce it. In this case, unfortunately, he doesn’t.

A bishop’s job involves fundraising, organizing, planning, managing, and community leadership. But these are only incidental roles. His all-important responsibility is to serve as a spiritual father for his people. Fulfill that function, and the other needs will fall into place; fail at spiritual leadership, and the other roles won’t matter.

St. Paul did write about fundraising; it’s a legitimate concern for an apostle. But look at the entire body of his epistles: the doctrinal instruction, the practical advice, the encouragement and exhortation and even scolding. That’s pastoral leadership, and that’s what we need today.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: nix898049 - Oct. 30, 2017 9:09 AM ET USA

    You can't give what you don't have. You can't put in what the Lord left out. I have an Irish background too! It's a crisis of Faith all around.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 29, 2017 4:26 PM ET USA

    Follow up. Priests & Bishops go to Seminary often spending years in post graduate work-Theology, Church matters and the spiritual life. Yet unity remains elusive! There is faction in ideas, & undermining belief. Sides go along critical of the other but winking "well we're right". So, who and what's right? We can't trust the Pope, Bishops, or Priests; very confusing. How do we know which Bishops and Priests are ok & which not so much? Don't mistake, I know the answer but this is painful.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 28, 2017 10:59 AM ET USA

    We struggle. Seems the question is: What (& Who) is real? We experience churchmen every Sunday w/ good intention, "turn to neighbor, introduce yourself promising to pray for them at this Mass". But relatively absent from Confirmation Sacramental prep & development. Do we have immortal souls and is eternal salvation a reality or not? Is Augustine right Massa Damnata? Are leaders just placating us because we're really lost anyway? Listen to Jorel! ..Lord knows we don't seem to be hearing "H"im.

  • Posted by: johnleocassidy3475 - Oct. 28, 2017 10:25 AM ET USA

    I grew up in 1960's Ireland in an amazing parish with very holy priests who really cared for the community. This experience left an indelible impression on my mind. After lapsing from the Church for many years, I returned to the fold in 2014. I was and still am stunned at the changes in our priests. Priests don't seem interested in feeding their lambs. This piece by Phil Lawler has hit the nail on the head. The priesthood is crying out for renewal & reform and the moment is upon us, please God!

  • Posted by: rosemariedoyle9560 - Oct. 28, 2017 12:39 AM ET USA

    You didn’t mention those who do go regularly to mass but hold opinions contrary to Catholic teaching such as abortion is not a sin if performed in the first three months or marriage should be allowed for people with same sex attraction.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Oct. 27, 2017 8:05 PM ET USA

    Two or three years ago the Bishop of Manchester in NH told his priests to have one Christmas Carol sung at each Sunday Mass during Advent. No, that is not a typo, it was Advent. Talk about playing the fiddle while Rome burns.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 27, 2017 12:57 PM ET USA

    The bishop's all-important responsibility is to serve as a spiritual father for his people. Are you kidding? God is so merciful that we will all end up in heaven. Thus, there is no need for a spiritual life. The Church needs to adapt to the times, and the modern bishop's all-important responsibility is to preach about climate change, the need for open borders, and avoid being a rigid doctrinaire.